Why Therapists and Parents Should Champion Resilience

Parent and child outside planting tree in fieldDo you bounce back from obstacles or do you tend to get mired in adversity? If you’ve largely avoided misfortune, how resilient can you be? How can you identify and develop the skills to prepare you for life’s inevitable difficulties?

In the past few months, both the New York Times and the New Yorker have published articles on the topic of resilience. The writer from the Times believes the term has become a “conveniently vacant” and “profoundly hollow” buzzword, a complaint from one generation to another—the elders professing concern that the younger people lack the bootstrapping ways of previous generations.

But resilience has many years of research and is much more than a buzzword or the basis for complaint, as the New Yorker explains well. It’s the product of a specific set of skills I believe all psychotherapists should be prepared to teach, and that all parents should understand on behalf of their children. It is worth keeping in mind that while we might wish to shield ourselves and our children from traumatic life experiences, these events have remarkably poor predictive power when it comes to happiness. For example, while we might guess that paraplegia would significantly alter a person’s happiness in the long term, what matters most is whether this particular form of adversity was processed and understood as traumatizing.

My job as a psychotherapist is first and foremost to clarify and further the goals of the person in therapy. Almost always, this involves teaching emotional and behavioral skills, usually with cognitive behavioral and solution-focused therapy techniques. While it might seem as if resilience is an inherited character trait, it’s a mind-set that develops from learned skills. It’s a way we meet problems and make meaning out of our circumstances.

Shouldn’t lessons in resilience be taught in every therapist’s office?

Psychotherapists are powerful professional allies. We can help people learn to believe in their ability to control outcomes in their lives. We can teach them how to have a confident and optimistic view about social opportunities, which may lead to greater support and recovery. We can help them train their minds to reframe darkness to allow for cracks of light to come in. Most importantly, we can keep reminding them that in the face of traumatic events there is always a choice at some point in the healing process: (1) continue to linger in the trauma or (2) take the opportunity to learn and grow.

To be sure, negative events are not to be celebrated. One thing I always make clear to people in the therapy room is that as important as it is to learn resilience skills, I never, ever think unfortunate or traumatic events are necessary for building character or developing coping skills.

To be sure, negative events are not to be celebrated. One thing I always make clear to people in the therapy room is that as important as it is to learn resilience skills, I never, ever think unfortunate or traumatic events are necessary for building character or developing coping skills. No person who is experiencing difficulty should feel like they were knocked over for some greater purpose of betterment, and no worthy parent would wish for their children to be hurt, in body, mind, or otherwise. There is a certain perversity in trying to feel grateful for an obstacle that has altered your ability to enjoy life.

Nobody is fully protected from hardship, however, and sooner or later we all need the tools to work through things. As my dad is fond of saying in response to anyone who laments growing older, “It’s better than the alternative.” Indeed, we are alive. We have choices. We can become good problem solvers, learn how to make friends, and much more. We can look to our communities for examples of others who had similar problems and perhaps apply some of their wisdom to our own circumstances.

As a psychotherapist, I revere resilience even as I wrap my arms around the depths of life’s most difficult emotions. The experience I want for people in therapy is to feel fully supported, understood, and challenged by the research-based knowledge I have to provide them in their times of trouble. Parents strive to provide this same environment to their children—an empathetic environment that doesn’t shy away from promoting the skills they need to learn to endure difficult feelings and circumstances. Let’s call on all helping professions to strengthen us in our times of need.

References:

  1. Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York City, NY: Alfred A Knopf for Random House, Inc.
  2. Konnikova, M. (2016). How People learn To become resilient. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-secret-formula-for-resilience
  3. Sehgal, P. (2015). The Profound emptiness of resilience. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/the-profound-emptiness-of-resilience.html

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lindsey Antin, MA, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • courtney

    courtney

    March 22nd, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    There is nothing else to champion if you want your child or your patient to survive in this world. I don’t think that anyone would want them to fail would they?

  • Andrea

    Andrea

    March 22nd, 2016 at 2:27 PM

    I want to teach my children that sometimes when you fall down, even though it might hurt, you have to always try to dust yourself off and try again.
    If you never let them fail at anything how are they ever to know just how strong that they can be?
    I have some friends who do EVERYTHING for their kids and as a result the kids have all grown up and now know how to do nothing for themselves.
    I want my children to be self reliant, self motivated, and to know that if they aren’t failing at least a few times then that only means that they are not willing to try something new.

  • Syd

    Syd

    March 23rd, 2016 at 11:05 AM

    Children need to be taught this early and often. If they aren’t they will forever be going aorund looking for someone to save them.

  • ernie

    ernie

    March 24th, 2016 at 2:22 PM

    I too want my kids to know that they can conquer the world if they set their minds to it. The problem that I have is when I see parents who push their children to the extreme don’t give them a chance to breathe or learn who they are or have a sense of how much they can take. I think that there are a lot of families who can end up in very rough situations when they don’t have an inkling about how hard the kid is being pushed and what this could be doing to their morale and self esteem.

  • Kara

    Kara

    March 26th, 2016 at 5:40 AM

    When I see people who have gone through such traumatic experiences and yet they are still able to go through their lives with a big smile on their face and a look of determination and no fearlessness?
    I think man, this is the person that I want to be!

  • TamiB

    TamiB

    March 28th, 2016 at 3:16 PM

    If we want to have strong children, then you teach them to be that way.
    You can also teach them to be weak.
    Do any of us really want that?

  • JoBeth

    JoBeth

    March 29th, 2016 at 4:00 PM

    my parents never taught me any of this. they always did everything for me as I was their only child and I thought that this was great when I was growing up but now that I am an “adult” and should know how to do a lot of this on my own and I don’t I realize what a disservice this really was. they still say that they did it all for me because they wanted to and I am their baby but I am ready to grow up some and stil feel like they are not letting me.

  • amy

    amy

    May 22nd, 2017 at 1:11 PM

    Thank you for acknowledging the nonsense of being grateful for trauma. That gratitude is somehow necessary for recovery or that all of us should grow as a result. I know it is partly where I am in my treatment, but I will never be grateful for being raped and I think the idea of being so is ridiculous. It stole 10yrs of my life, It made me afraid of men and the dark, it isolates me, I could go on. It is like expecting a survivor to forgive. That’s great if you can do that, but sometimes acceptance is all there is and that is fine.

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